Ohio State is once again your Big Ten champs, and the matchup everyone has been waiting for is on the horizon. The Buckeyes are slated to take on the Clemson Tigers next Friday in the Sugar Bowl, with the winner advancing to the National Championship Game. The two teams look a bit different than they did last time around, but the history and the feelings towards one another have not changed.
We will have lots of content leading up to kickoff here at Land-Grant Holy Land, and to get some help previewing this year’s Clemson squad, we spoke with our SB Nation sister site Shakin the Southland. I got a chance to fire some questions at senior writer Ryan Kantor, whose been covering the Tigers at STS since 2013. For more Clemson coverage, be sure to give him a follow over at @ryan_kantor on Twitter.
Gene: Obviously, Clemson is a much better team than they were when they lost to Notre Dame earlier in the year. The CFP Committee seems to think Trevor Lawrence’s absence was the difference in that game, but DJ Uiagalelei played well. What do you think are the biggest improvements the team has made from then to now?
Ryan: Heading into the ACC Championship, national pundits couldn’t fathom why Clemson was favored by 10 points despite losing at Notre Dame in November. Those who follow Clemson more closely were confident in a decisive Tiger win. It’s true that DJ Uiagalelei passed the ball beautifully, but he played with an injury that largely took him out of the running game. Without the zone read, Clemson’s offense couldn’t create running lanes for Travis Etienne. In the rematch, you could see the defensive end freeze and Etienne run right around him.
Even bigger than that was getting Clemson’s two best defensive players back. Nose tackle Tyler Davis and middle linebacker Jamie Skalski missed the first Notre Dame game. That played a big role in the Irish being able to run the ball. On top of that, Clemson’s SAM linebacker Mike Jones was out and several other players including both safeties, one cornerback, and the other starting defensive tackle were injured during the game. The injuries were so ridiculous that Shakin the Southland writer Alex Craft dubbed the term “Diet Clemson.” That’s who Notre Dame beat. Injuries are part of the game and they deserve full credit, but it made little sense to use their win over “Diet Clemson” to project that they’d be competitive in the rematch.
Gene: Isaiah Simmons was Clemson’s best defensive player a season ago, while the team also lost guys like AJ Terrell, Tee Higgins and Tanner Muse to the NFL Draft. In addition, Justyn Ross has missed the entire season with an injury. How have they been able to replace that production on both sides of the ball?
Ryan: The Tigers offense had to replace four starting offensive linemen and their two best wide receivers. This elicited a lot of concern from me coming into the year and to an extent, it’s proved to be warranted. Fortunately, seniors Amari Rodgers and Cornell Powell have taken their game to a new level. Rodgers is Clemson’s best wide receiver. He isn’t a tall, jump ball guy like Justyn Ross, but he has great hands, strength, and speed. He’s been the rock for this receiving corps. Cornell Powell has joined him as a go-to target during the second half of the year. He had mostly been a non-factor for the first four and a half years of his Clemson career, but he is rewriting his legacy in his final games (although he could return for a sixth year). He may have even put himself on the NFL’s radar.
The offensive line has been great in pass blocking but has struggled mightily in run blocking (a topic we’ll discuss in the next question). It seems a lot of these struggles may have been solved against Notre Dame as execution was better and play calling in the running game was very creative.
On defense, Mike Jones and Malcom Greene have done a commendable job replacing Isaiah Simmons. Obviously, when a player like Isaiah Simmons or Chase Young leaves, you expect some drop off, but they’ve been very good. At safety, Nolan Turner has been awesome. Coach Swinney said he has been as good as any safety he has had at Clemson. He was ejected on a targeting penalty in the second half of the ACC Championship and will miss the first half of the Sugar Bowl. This may present a notable opportunity for the Buckeyes.
Gene: I could be wrong, but it seems like Travis Etienne has taken a step back from last year. Obviously, he is still one of the top running backs in college football, but do you think his downtick in yardage has been performance based or just the product of college football’s transition to a more pass-heavy attack?
Ryan: Travis likely succeeded in improving his draft stock to first round status after receiving a second-round grade last year. His pass blocking and pass catching has improved tremendously. He was very weak in both regards as a freshman and now they’re strengths.
I believe most of his struggles can be attributed to playing behind four new starters on the offensive line. Even some of his fumbles may be because he was anticipating running into contact immediately. Fortunately for Clemson, the play calling and blocking in the running game may have turned the corner just in time for the biggest challenges of the season. Etienne is still very dangerous, even if his output on the season has been disappointing.
Gene: Even Nick Saban has said that college football has become a sport that centers around high-powered offenses. It seems like no team has a dominant defense anymore. How would you compare this year’s Clemson defensive unit to last years?
Ryan: When healthy, I think this year’s defense is better than last year’s unit. Yes, they lost two first rounders in Isaiah Simmons and cornerback AJ Terrell, but the defensive line is improved. Two true freshmen, DE Myles Murphy and DT Bryan Bresee have made a big impact. Last season, Clemson used a lot of three down linemen looks (e.g., 3-3-5) to mask their defensive line. This year they haven’t had to make such contortions. If they’re finally healthy, I think they can be elite defensively. They’ve just been so banged up this year they haven’t caught people’s attention. Even still, they rank 6th in total defense allowing under 300 yards per game.
Gene: What do you think the keys to the game are this time around? What does a Clemson win over Ohio State look like? What would the Buckeyes have to do to win the rematch against the Tigers?
Ryan: I think Ohio State can win if they establish the rushing attack successfully (Trey Sermon’s performance against a good Northwestern defense certain makes that seem possible), and attack Clemson’s safeties. Justin Fields is one of the most impressive QBs I’ve seen at turning busted plays into first downs. I imagine Justin Fields rushing the ball successfully will be a major part of any path to a Buckeye victory.
Ohio State, having only played six games, is hard to get a pulse on. I still have reservations about their defense. I think Hafley is a fantastic coach and that loss may be felt in this matchup. The Buckeyes have played just one team in the top 65 in total offense (37th-ranked Penn State when they were playing horribly). Clemson needs to get to Justin Fields in the pocket (he is slippery, but sometimes stays in the pocket too long) and slow Trey Sermon. On offense, I think Clemson can be successful doing what they did against Notre Dame – lean on Trevor Lawrence and the passing game and use creativity in the running game to keep them off balance.
Gene: Finally, Dabo Swinney has been very outspoken against Ohio State being included in the College Football Playoff. Personally, I think playing only six games is more of a detriment to the Buckeyes having not gotten to really hit their stride as a team. Do you think Dabo actually thinks Ohio State is the 11th best team in the country, or is it part of his shtick? Conversely, had the ACC screwed Clemson and they only played six games, would Dabo be pining for his team to make the CFP?
Ryan: I think there’s a lack of agreement on what the rankings are supposed to be. They say it is the four best teams, but obviously some element of “deserving” is involved. I don’t doubt for a second that Ohio State is probably one of the four best teams. From purely a win-probability perspective, I’d prefer to play Georgia, Cincinnati, or some of the other teams Coach Swinney has ranked above the Buckeyes. From purely a most deserving standpoint, Ohio State was robbed of their opportunity to prove it by Commissioner Kevin Warren and the Big Ten Presidents. Given that wasn’t their fault, I’m glad the Buckeyes are in.
I genuinely, don’t think this is some schtick. Coach Brian Kelly (who ranked OSU #4) explained it well on ESPN’s college football playoff poll when he said coaches have a different perspective than fans and athletic directors. They’re in the grind every week and know how hard the 2020 routine has been with all the testing and protocol on top of practice. Coach Swinney said “it’s not just football-wise, but the mental challenge and the personal sacrifice and commitment that everyone has had to make to be able to play and continue to play.” Doing that for about half as long makes difference.
The grind matters on the field too. Clemson played Miami in their fourth game of the season. DJ Uiagalelei injured his shoulder in that game. In the Tigers eighth game (which took place while the Buckeyes were playing their third game of the year), the Tigers had to turn to DJ at Notre Dame and his shoulder injury may have been the difference in the game.
All that said, I would have ranked OSU #3 and wish Coach Swinney didn’t give them bulletin board material (although getting revenge is probably enough motivation for OSU anyway). I might feel differently had Coach Day and Justin Fields not been on the forefront of saving college football, but as it is, I’m really happy Fields, Lawrence, and Najee Harris (Alabama) will all get to play in the College Football Playoff after fighting to save it.
If you would like to check out my answers to Kantor’s questions about Ohio State, they can be found here.